Help me build mental stamina
April 19, 2006 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in any tips, tricks, and advice on cultivating mental endurance.

What do you do to keep yourself going? My question is geared mostly towards pushing through physical exhaustion and pain, so I suspect advice from athletes would apply well, but I'm open to suggestions from anyone who's got them.
posted by moira to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Moira, what do you mean by mental endurance? What kind of mental activity is it? Are you solving complex math/physics problems and you have to work round the clock because the solution could save the world? Or, are you engaged in a battle of wits with an evil overlord?

I guess I don't understand what you're doing, what all it involves. I need more details.
posted by generic230 at 9:56 AM on April 19, 2006

Short answer: competition and teammates.

when i rowed crew in college, the races weren't half as hard as the training on the machines. What helped me the most was working simultaneously with my teammates. Out on the water it was a little bit easier cause of the energy of the race.

I see the same thing when I play rubgy (I play competitively with a team) - I get bored working on the machines at the gym, but it's amazing how I don't really run out of energy during the game.

When I am training in the gym, I find that the time goes by much better when I have my ipod. I usually download audiobooks or language learning materials because I get less bored.

Also, mixing things up helps - easier to run quick, then slow down, than just go at an easier pace for a long time. When I get bored, I try to go faster rather than slow down.
posted by BigBrownBear at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2006

this is for me, other people might feel differently, of course.
posted by BigBrownBear at 10:02 AM on April 19, 2006

I run ultramarathons, and what helps me the most is breaking up the activity into manageable chunks of time. For instance, I'll take walk breaks every 10 or 20 minutes (depending on the length of the race) and just knowing that a break is coming really helps when I'm exhausted. It also helps at the beginning--I don't get overwhelmed thinking, "Aaah, I have to run 50 miles!" Instead, I just think, "Okay, 10 minutes and then I can walk for a minute!" and keep doing it the whole race.

Music also helps me zone out and get in a rhythm, as does conversation with fellow runners.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 10:06 AM on April 19, 2006

Generic230, I'll be pushing through physical exhaustion and pain; specifically, giving birth sans meds after a lot of down time. I want all the Jedi mind tricks I can get my hands on. I think it can make a huge difference.

I will, of course, subsequently be engaged in a battle of wits with an evil overlord.

Don't let the whole giving birth thing scare any of you potential contributors off. I plan to start and maintain an exercise program as soon as possible, and I've never been one for sticking with aerobic exercise very well, so much of this will help me there, too.

In fact, I can see ways to apply the advice given so far. Thank you thank you thank you, and don't stop!
posted by moira at 10:19 AM on April 19, 2006

Okay. Got it. Yes, becoming physically more fit will be a great boost to your physical endurance, pain toleration and mental accuity. For me, to take my mind off something painful or difficult, I chant. IANAB (I am not a Buddhist), but I did attend a few sessions, and now, whenever I am stressed, I chant this: Nam yo ho renge kyo. Over and over. You can do it silently, or out loud. Out loud, it's done in a low voice, and will make your whole head hum. Also, you hang on the last syllable - kyo - and it makes a very soothing sensation in your head. It's incredibly peaceful and stress relieving. Especially when done out loud. Very soothing.

Secondly, yoga or pilates. Both of these things can be physically strenuous enough to make you sweat, and build your strength, endurance and stamina, but also, because of the breathing techniques, they are unbelievably relaxing and centering. Both of these involve stretching, which we don't get enough of in most exercise. Stretching is a really quick, noticeable stress reliever.

Hope this helps.
posted by generic230 at 10:49 AM on April 19, 2006

giving birth sans meds after a lot of down time. I want all the Jedi mind tricks I can get my hands on.

You should really consider having a doula. Here's the one we used (in San Diego), and while she's moving soon I'm sure she can recommend others to you.
posted by Aknaton at 11:23 AM on April 19, 2006

Practice self-hypnosis. You can find tapes that will guide you in hypnotic inductions (look on Audible for Glenn Harrold). Use these as "training" for what the hypnotic state feels like and what mental imagery it takes to get there. Once you're familiar with it, you should be able to induce a semi-hypnotic state at will without the tapes

One of the keys to self-hypnosis is to break a sense of "normal body awareness" and mind-body connectedness. Use relaxation techniques to get you to a place where you are deeply relaxed, then imagine your "spirit" shrinking to the side of a point within your body or expanding to fill a greater area than your body. This usually allows me to go into a deeper state of hypnosis. I don't believe there's anything mystical or paranormal about this - this type of visualization just does something to brain centers that disconnects your sense of mind from your sense of body.

It is funny you mention "Jedi mind tricks" - pretending you are a Jedi is also a good technique to deepen hypnosis. Visualize that you are using the force to move an object in the room, to pick it up or cause it to float (with your eyes closed, of course). If the object actually does move, let us know!

If you want to "train" your powers, you might want to try subjecting yourself to stimuli like putting your hand in ice-cold water or something to see if you can progressively block it out. Of course, if you are pregnant, you also might not want to risk things.

Hope this helps!
posted by sherlockt at 11:29 AM on April 19, 2006

As a competitive athlete, one of my strengths has always been the ability to "outsuffer" my opponents. A good part of this I ascribe to a mental practice of classifying pain. I've learned from experience to distinguish between pain that signifies exertion or minor trauma easily healed, and severe injuries or chronic conditions that will require more extensive rehabilitation. If I am confident that a pain sensation is not signaling a damaging event, it is possible with practice to change the way I experience it, even to enjoy it.

Since the sensations you will be experiencing will be novel for you, it might be useful to get a thorough description of these sensations from someone who has experienced them. A description of symptoms which indicate trouble might also be useful in allowing you to distinguish benign and serious pain. However, depending on your mindset, this last suggestion could be counterproductive, causing you to imagine serious symptoms when it is more likely that none are occuring.

Training the ability to "tune out" spurious pain sensations is a good idea. Sherlockt's ice-water could work, I've used it similarly, tuning out the sensation while soaking injuries. Don't exceed 15 minutes on a body part. Hot peppers are the example I've usually used when describing this mental technique, and how one can actually cultivate a craving for it.

I have experienced a semi-mystical state, like what Sherlockt describes in moments of extreme exhaustion and pain combined with monomaniacal desire. I'm not able to summon it at will, but it happens on occasion when you hit a wall of sorts and summon the energy to remain focused and push through it. It is always a peak experience and has something of an "out-of-body" feel to it. I haven't thought of it as connected, but I do also engage in visualization as rehearsal for events. It involves putting yourself in an alpha state (something that becomes easy with practice) and then visualizing your experience of the event, with you performing as desired, and savoring the sensations. If your mind wanders to undesired outcomes, you gently guide it back to the desired track.
posted by Manjusri at 2:13 PM on April 19, 2006

Try meditating: it will help you separate the feelings of pain and discomfort from the mental resistance that often accompanies them. Without that resistance, they tend to be a lot easier to bear.
posted by koenie at 2:39 PM on April 19, 2006

This sort of toughness is about the only thing I still really value from my years of karate. It was pretty hard stuff, though. Certainly not something for pregnant women. (I only saw one in my time, and she took it waaaaay easy. Too easy to get more out of it than you'd get from low impact aerobic exercise.)

Maybe long walks would do the trick, fast walks on bush tracks, but no stopping until preset times. (ie. no slowing down or breaks, even if your legs are burning, or whatever.) It's a little painful, so not letting it control you will very slowly build mental toughness.
posted by The Monkey at 4:57 PM on April 19, 2006

I second yoga (vinyasa? hatha?). I meditated for a while -- that would help, too (vispassana was the kind I did). Both involve mentally separating from your body.

Here's a pitch for yoga -- think: balancing on one leg, forming a T with one leg as it's base and your upper body and your other leg as the top bar. It makes your muscles hurt. You get used to it and develop mental tricks. And with a good teacher, they'll teach you breathing techniques. I found all this amazingly helpful even for daily stressors I didn't realize were physically painful until I noticed myself slipping into the breathing techniques.
posted by salvia at 5:25 PM on April 19, 2006

Thank you everyone for the great advice; everything here is going to be useful. I plan on doing some daily mental conditioning that takes from meditation/hypnosis/etc., and also practicing with discomfort that isn't actually harmful. I'm also going to be throwing in lots of positive affirmation. And the event visualization is genius, thank you.

I would absolutely LOVE to get back to doing yoga, but it's pretty much out of the question for me right now. I'm (temporarily) on crutches, and limited to some isolated resistance exercises and light swimming/water aerobics. It's a relief to get that much in.

I'm still wondering how I could take advantage of the competition advice for this, as it really is one thing that drives me past what I'd normally be able or willing to do. Hmm.

Aknaton, I would love to hire a doula, but it's a bit out of my price range. Happily, the hospital here has a volunteer program. If I'm lucky, I can catch one for the birth itself.
posted by moira at 7:18 PM on April 19, 2006

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